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Briefings & Documents Menu / Anti-war Briefings Menu / Briefing 03

3 October 2001

Think Again: Six Things Your MP Needs To Know About The Coming War

1) The Taliban have not refused point-blank to extradite Osama bin Laden.
2) The evidence collected by international police forces against bin Laden is not sufficient for a court of law.
3) Secret evidence possessed by US intelligence agencies has proven disastrously wrong in the past.
4) The British people want evidence produced before action is taken.
5) The US and UK governments are breaking international law by refusing to negotiate or to obey legal restraints on the use of force.
6) It is the US which forced Pakistan to close the border, contributing greatly to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

1) The Taliban Have Not Refused

Labour MP Donald Anderson, chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, thinks that 'pigs will fly' before the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden, the Saudi dissident regarded as the prime suspect for the atrocities of 11 Sept. (Telegraph, 25 Sept., p. 1)

But in fact the Taliban have not refused point-blank to hand over bin Laden. The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, has said repeatedly that the request for extradition can be considered, but only after evidence has been provided by the United States. On 21 Sept., Ambassador Zaeef said, 'The Americans should show control, conduct an investigation and show us proof before they attack. The United Nations and Organisation of Islamic Conference should also investigate'. (Telegraph, 22 Sept., p. 4) On the same day he said, 'We are not ready to hand over Osama bin Laden without evidence' (emphasis added, Times, 22 Sept., p. 1).

When US Secretary of State Colin Powell promised to publish a dossier of evidence, Ambassador Zaeef responded positively: 'it was "good news" that the US intended to produce its evidence against Mr bin Laden. This could help to solve the issue "otherwise than fighting".' (Independent, 25 Sept., p. 3) After the US presented its alleged 'evidence' against bin Laden to NATO on 2 Oct., 'leaders of the ruling Taliban militia' 'urged the United States to share its evidence with them, saying they hoped for a negotiated settlement intead of a military conflict.' (Washington Post website, 3 Oct., p. A11)

It is standard practice to ask for evidence against a suspect before extraditing them to another country. Why then does the US refuse to follow this normal procedure? President Bush has 'peremptorily dismissed a request from the Taliban for proof that Mr bin Laden was behind the outrages on 11 September.' (Independent, 22 Sept., p. 1)

The Taliban have not refused point-blank to hand over bin Laden. They appear to have gone so far as to negotiate the extradition of bin Laden to Pakistan: 'The proposal, which had bin Laden's approval, was that within the framework of Islamic shar'ia law evidence of his alleged involvement in the New York and Washington attacks would be placed before an international tribunal. The court would decide whether to try him on the spot or hand him over to America.' The deal was apparently agreed by Mullah Omar, Taliban supreme leader, but vetoed by Pakistan's President Musharraf. (Telegraph, website, 4 Oct.)

The Prime Minister intends to publish the evidence that has convinced him that bin Laden's organisation was involved in the 11 Sept. atrocities. The Prime Minister should commit himself to transmitting this information to the Taliban regime directly, and then requesting extradition, before any military action is contemplated.

The 'evidence' has been passed to Pakistan: 'a senior Pakistani official' familiar with the meeting at which the 'evidence' was passed to President Musharraf said 'the 90-minute meeting did not convey any US evidence of bin Laden's alleged involvement. "It was nothing more than what you gather from watching CNN and reading The Washington Post."' (Washington Post, 3 Oct., p. A11)

2) A Lack Of Evidence

On 18 Sept., the FBI case against bin Laden was 'not what a prosecutor in a high profile murder or terrorism case would call an open and shut case'. (Independent, 19 Sept., p. 5) The Foreign Office admitted at the same time that the evidence accumulated by MI6 was not sufficient for a prosecution 'with much hope of success': 'We have not made our final conclusion about the identification of the perpetrators.' (Guardian 20 Sept., p. 8) Have things changed since? Not according to German investigators digging into the hottest leads on the case (see overleaf).

The FBI says that 'some' of the 19 hijackers 'had been linked to Mr bin Laden', 'even though it was still not known for certain that investigators had established the hijackers real names'. (Independent, 29 Sept., 4) A senior US law enforcement official has indicated that the best leads were coming out of Germany, 'suggesting the network had its origins there'. (Independent, 26 Sept., p. 4)

Indeed, within days of the atrocities, Germany's chief federal prosecutor Kay Nehm said that his office was investigating a small extremist Islamic group: '"These people were of Arab background and [had] formed a terrorist organisation with the aim of launching spectacular attacks on institutions in the US," he said.' (FT, 14 Sept., p. 6) After three days, the German chief prosecutor still had no hard evidence on any Osama bin Laden connection: 'Despite a weekend of intense police activity in Germany, however, the country's chief prosecutor said he still had no evidence linking the alleged hijackers to the Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden.' (Guardian, 17 Sept., p. 11)

A 'well-informed senior German investigator' 'emphasised that there was still no clinching evidence that would convict bin Laden in a court.' (Times, 28 Sept., p. 5)

Robert Fisk notes that thousands of Algerians fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but 'there is no evidence of a bin Laden link with the Algerian Islamists who, along with the army, have taken the lives of 120,000 people in Algeria'. 'Repeatedly, the discovery that Arabs accused of bombings or murders fought in Afghanistan has been regarded as proof that they work for Mr bin Laden. But most of the thousands of foreigners who made their pilgrimage to Afghanistan to fight the Russians were encouraged to do so by the CIA, not Mr bin Laden.' (Independent, 25 Sept.)

The apparent leader of the hijackers, Mohamed Atta, 'did not completely conform to the ascetic image of bin Laden's followers', (Times, 28 Sept., p. 5) and therefore is unlikely to have been a member of Al-Qa'eda, bin Laden's organisation. In fact, Atta 'is said to have been a near-alcoholic'. (Independent, 29 Sept., p. 5)

The final instructions to the hijackers found in Atta's luggage do not appear to be written by a devout Muslim. Robert Fisk points out that 'No Muslim - however ill-taught - would include his family' in the prayer that opens the document, or would forget to include the Prophet in the opening line of the prayer. No devout Muslim would need to write down the morning prayer. Fisk also notes that there is no reference to bin Laden's demands - that US forces be withdrawn from the Gulf, that Israel end its occupation of Palestine, and so on. (Fisk, 'What Muslim would write "The time of fun and waste is gone"?', Independent, 29 Sept., p. 5)

No doubt some of the hijackers had visited Afghanistan and some may even have trained at Al-Qa'eda camps. But this is not evidence that bin Laden was the mastermind for 11 September. Jurgen Storbeck, the director of Europol, the EU anti-terrorist organisation, 'cautioned against jumping to conclusions before the mass of evidence had been properly sifted,' as long ago as 14 Sept.

Storbeck pointed out that "Bin Laden is not the automatic leader of every terrorist act carried out in the name of Islam. It's possible that he was informed about the operation; it's even possible that he influenced it; but he's probably not the man who steered every action or controlled the detailed plan. As for the idea that, sitting in Afghanistan, he could have controlled the last phase of the operation is something we should not accept without a lot of doubt." "There are a lot of people with the same philosophy who may have been to bin Laden's training camps, but are not necessarily under his orders," Mr Storbeck added. (Daily Telegraph, 15 Sept., p. 9)

This cautious assessment is a powerful corrective to the 'evidence' that the Prime Minister is expected to unveil to Parliament.

3) The Unreliability Of Secret Evidence

In June 1993, the US fired cruise missiles at Baghdad because a US intelligence report suggested that Iraq had plotted to assassinate former president George Bush. An investigation by noted US reporter Seymour Hersh for the New Yorker established that the intelligence assessment was 'seriously flawed', and that the Administration's claimed "evidence" was 'factually inaccurate'. (New Yorker, 1 Nov. 1993 p. 81)

In 1998, the US fired cruise missiles at a factory in Sudan which it claimed was involved in the secret production of weapons of mass destruction. No evidence has ever been produced to support this claim. Now 'the missile strikes on a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum and southern Afghanistan are recognised to have been a mistake and counter-productive.' (Independent, 13 Sept., p. 7)

When the US claims to have "secret intelligence" that justifies war, we are entitled to be sceptical. Why should ordinary people in Afghanistan die, by war or by famine, and why should British and US service personnel risk their lives, on the basis of "secret evidence"? No one would be executed in the US on the basis of "secret evidence". Why should millions of people be put at risk of famine on this basis?

4) Public Demand For Evidence Before Action

A Gallup poll in the US and UK shows the public demand for justice for 11 September. The overwhelmingly popular choice (62 per cent support in the US, 82 per cent in the UK) was, 'The US and its allies should only conduct military strikes against the terrorist organisations responsible for the attacks on the US even if it takes months to identify them.' The position of the US and British governments, to strike known terrorists 'even if it is not clear who caused the attacks', received the support of only 23 per cent of respondents in the US, 13 per cent in the UK. (Telegraph, 20 Sept., p. 2)

5) Negotiate Now

The UN Charter explicitly states that the resolution of 'any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security', shall, first of all, 'seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice' (Article 33). Bizarrely, it is not the hard-line fanatic Taliban who are rejecting negotiation and compromise - they are making offers, and welcoming the production of any evidence. It is the White House that says there will be 'no negotiations, no discussions'. (Telegraph, 22 Sept., p. 1)

6) Open The Pakistani Border

As part of its plan to capture bin Laden and destroy his organisation, Washington forced Pakistan to close its border with Afghanistan, so that no suspects could escape. (Telegraph, 15 Sept., p. 4) But this is a major obstacle to caring for the hundreds of thousands of refugees. The US must be forced to allow the opening of the border. ARROW

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